herald

Friday 20 October 2017

the things we miss when our eyes are glued to the screen

there's a lot to admire about technology but sometimes it's cool to just smell the roses

it's been a damp and chilly few days but we've woken to a glorious morning. The birds are beside themselves. I'm out on Killiney Hill, where the path opens out over the sea and the sun heats the granite until you could be anywhere, any lovely place in the world.

The gorse is coming into flower, the sea is pure liquid silver and - and here comes a woman stamping along the path, shouting into her mobile phone.

"No no no," she says, "I told you. That doesn't suit me at all." She gets louder, setting up a meeting. Her irritation bounces off the rocks. She powers on past, giving out. There's a frown on her you could knit into a jumper.

I want to take her phone and fling it over the edge. I want to say to her, "What are you doing? Look around you: this place is so gorgeous it would take the eyes out of your head, and there you are spreading stress like a germ." But she's gone, legs pumping, towards the car park.

The trouble is, I've caught her aggravation. By the time I've stopped being cross, I've passed the sea myself. I can still see it from the road but it's more distant, less personal.

The city takes it over, the way electronics 
take over. They have some kind of weird 
magnetism that pulls our attention towards them no matter where we are, who we're with or what we're doing.

You must have seen this: a family, out for dinner, grouped around a table. Every single person peering into a separate screen. In silence. Whoever they're communicating with or thinking about, it's not the people they're actually with.

Or this: did you ever give your kids a lift somewhere and they're too busy texting their friends to talk to you?

Do you feel like a cog in the engine of your own car, no other purpose to your life than to ferry them from A to B, and you don't even get the benefit of eavesdropping on one side of the conversation?

queue

You must have been behind someone at a supermarket checkout or a counter when it's their turn to be served.

But oh, look, they finish their on-screen business before engaging with the person who's waiting to deal with them - before you, before everyone behind you in the queue, all of you having to wait while the texter selects an emoticon and hits Send.

When I was in school, back in the last century, the nuns were big on confiscation. Unsuitable books, teen mags from England, chewing gum, sweets, posters of rock stars - all were swept up into a Bermuda Triangle of confiscation.

If I was a nun, I'd patrol the country's many queues and confiscate the phones. I'd whip their flickering lights and annoying beeps away from people in cinemas and at the theatre who simply aren't capable of turning the damn things off.

Don't even get me started on the ones who text while driving: carloads of children, buses, HGVs - or cycling. Yes, cycling.

Young people peer into their phones instead of watching where they put their feet or paying any attention whatsoever to where they are.

They might never learn the names of the streets they pass, or notice that someone interesting passes the same spot at the same time every day, which is how one of my sisters met the man she fell in love with.

What's it all doing to our inner lives? No one's ever alone any more, they turn to their phones for company.

Kids don't have to adapt to unexpected situations, they outsource solutions by phone. No one has to stick to arrangements when changes are easily made by phone.

Who needs to store information in their head when Googling is easier and faster? Why learn someone's number, when you can store their name in Contacts?

luddite

Maybe it's all good and I'm just a cranky old luddite. Smartphones are amazing tools. For all I know these changes are part of an evolutionary shift that our children's children will appreciate, but I worry about its busy-ness.

Flexible working hours are fantastic, but do we have to be contactable 24/7? It's great to connect with the world, but what about paying attention to the person beside you?

What if our sense of direction is being surrendered to sat-nav, or we're losing the ability to concentrate because our eyes are constantly lured away to links at the side? Will we enhance our ability to skim the surface at the expense of going deep?

Call me paranoid, but I'm not sure that surrendering any kind of power is the best idea, especially not to something that's so much smarter than we are.

Lia Mills's new book, Fallen, is published by Penguin, priced €14.99

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